How to organize your first day in a new city when you are traveling

An MR reader sends me this request:

You land in a new city – an urban area – without other commitments.
What’s the first thing you do?
What’s your first day look like?

The first thing I do is make sure blog is ready for the day to come (though that is usually pre-arranged if I am traveling).

The second thing I do is decide whether the country is worth wasting a meal on breakfast.  I might just skip it.  If not, the next thing I will do is get breakfast.  I evaluate breakfast options by walking and by sight, not by using the internet, as I find that old-fashioned method better training for all that life brings us.

Then I try to walk through at least two neighborhoods, to get a general sense of the city.  More importantly, I can then later take some time over lunch without feeling I haven’t seen anything yet.  These neighborhoods should be connected to the main drag in some way but not the main drag itself.  The main drag is often boring, though essential, and it is more likely to get a fuller treatment on day two, with only a quick peek on day one.

The best art museum will come after lunch, and then be followed by more neighborhood walking, perhaps in a more distant part of the city.  A major food market will come on day two, a vista or city lookout will come on day three.  It means less if I go to either right away, because I have less information about what I should be noticing and looking for.

The real question is what to postpone, not what to do.  Don’t attempt the most fully integrative experiences right off the bat, because you are squandering some of their potency.


I hit the biggest used bookstores. I usually find something I wasn't looking for.

Some used bookstores have a shelf for books that are not categorizable in their established categories. If they have one, that's the first place I go. I have a manual for funeral directors on the funeral practices of many religious sects which came from such a shelf. I passed on the historical treatise on cannibalism. I did buy the book on pilviculture. I'm still kicking myself for not buying the book on design of nuclear reactors for desalination. My favorite book dealer told me a wise bit of advice -- it's not the books you buy which you regret, it's the ones which got away.

One may not regret individual useless books purchased, but it is possible to regret them in aggregate. Or be crushed to death by a collapsing bookcase.

There is a solution to that. Just be aggressive about moving out less desirable books. Do not adopt the policy of holding all captured territory. I've sold lots of books at a loss (but not a loss in the sense I had to acquire those books to sort out the ones I kept), and I've given away books to other book collectors and to Goodwill.

A book seller would say so (although I mostly agree). I bought recently two English translations of Soviet sociology. It was the Truth, a collectoon of self-evident truths, the blueprints of a bright future. Now, thise books can only be found at history's dustbin and used bookstores (we call them "sebos"). Look on my books, ye mighty, and despair!

That sounds interesting. What are the titles?

Of late, I try to find used record shops. First because I like to but used records but also because you can generally find more low rent food and coffee places near record shops. At least in Japan, which is where most of my traveling is these days.

'If not, the next thing I will do is get breakfast. I evaluate breakfast options by walking and by sight'

Well, some people prefer the simple option of finding a local bakery - in the morning time, a warm and fresh selection can be realistically expected.

'Then I try to walk through at least two neighborhoods, to get a general sense of the city'

Well, if you plan to stay in the city for more than a day or two, the best thing is get what you travel with safely stored. Backpacks are definitely not for short trips, nor professional ones. And if you arrive by motorcycle, having a place for the jacket, helmet, etc. is convenient - then afterwards go walking, Though first buying a 3 day/week transit pass is a good idea, so as to be able to travel more broadly. (This tip is particularly relevant for Vienna - the first I have had blisters in more than two decades involved seriously underestimating how far it was to walk from the new main train station to the Prater amusement park without wearing proper walking shoes.)

Local bakery? I though the topic was the "world". That's why try emphasizes in some countries there's breakfast, in others doesn't.

Most places in the world have what can be called bakeries - after all, the trick of taking a grain and putting it into something resembling an oven is pretty well known. Of course there are a number of variations, but possibly you might be missing from what is meant by 'bakery.' I do not mean a place to buy coffee, for example. I'm certainly open to the idea that some places may not have much in the way of bakeries, or that the way that grain is put in an oven is done at home instead of a business (though obviously, that would not be true in a city, which is what is under discussion - even in Germany, not every single village has its own local bakery), but every city I have ever visited in North America or Europe has bakeries. I'm pretty sure that South America, India, the Middle East, and Africa provide something along the same lines - and again, I am not talking about what Starbucks offers as baked goods. Asia might be a bit more checkerboard - Vietnam apparently has excellent bakeries, but I can certainly imagine that non-colonized Thailand does not. As for China - again, the north is a wheat growing region, so I'm pretty sure that those areas know the trick of baking too, though I could be wrong, of course.

You could go to a bakery in Thailand but, then again, you could also go to a McDonald's and grab an egg mcmuffin. I think the point is to know in advance what typical breakfast food is and whether it is worth seeking out. In the Philippines, the "pandesal" is nice when fresh from the oven but, otherwise, bakeries there have an assortment of pastries that are super-sweet and have grated cheese on top and/or a sweet filling of some kind inside. They basically serve up cheap, sugar-filled snack food.

If it's a water based city, taking some sort of boat tour/ride right away does wonders for helping you grasp shape and dimensions of city. Great to start with.

The best art museum will come after lunch

I don't think this is going to work out well in more popular destinations. If you want to visit the Uffizi in Florence, better get there early or reserve tickets in advance, anyway when it comes to this kind of thing you need to plan ahead.

I have just come back from Amsterdam, I find that coffee and a spliff works well for breakfast.

Where possible, I seek out the nearest Aesop store (a skincare brand). In my experience, it's a failsafe indicator of a walkable, cool neighbourhood, often just at the right level of gentrification. (This isn't a product placement for Aesop, although they are very good at site selection).

The first thing I do when visiting a Brazilian city is look for breadsellers/bakeries (padarias) and second-hand boks sellers ("sebos"). The better a neighborhood's coffee and milk and used books are, the nearer it is the optimum of gentrification.

I was a daily runner for 30 years (I know, what was I thinking), and I would almost always start my visit to a new place with a run, which was a great way to get familiar with a place and to identify spots (restaurants, museums, etc.) I wished to visit later. Running allowed me to cover a large area in little time, and gave me the (false) confidence that I wouldn't be mugged if I wandered into unfriendly territory (I thought muggers were much lees likely to accost a runner than a walker). I suppose the same could be accomplished today with Google Maps. But by far the most important thing I do when I visit a new place is plan my visit in advance. There are two types of travelers: those who plan everything in advance (not only where to stay, but where to eat) and those who leave everything to chance. I'm in the former camp. It mystifies me when I see people visiting a new place wandering around aimlessly, couples repeatedly asking one another if they should go here, or go there there, or go nowhere, reading the menus restaurants often post by the front door to see if anything might appeal to their pedestrian tastes. Sure, I'm not a slave to my plan, but the plan avoids being one of those aimless tourists one sees so often in places with lots of visitors. But beware: traveling will put to the test any relationship, and if you and your companion have opposite views about planning a trip in advance, don't go.

I am in between the two camps: I'll do some research prior to the trip, in particular if there are sights or events that require advance reservations then I darn well better find out and make the appropriate reservations. As well as get a general idea of what I'll want to do.

But except for those advance reservations I'll make only minimal actual advance plans. Instead, I'll make the decisions when I get there.

Generally I'll wait until the evening to decide what I'm going to do the next day -- and even then I'll change my plans if I want to.

That way I have a lot of flexibility to change my mind or stay somewhere longer or shorter, and I am not a slave to some preconceived plan where I have to worry if I'm falling behind schedule or have to rush from place to place. But I'm not wandering aimlessly either, because of my preparations the evening before.

That's mainly for US road travel; for foreign travel I'll do a bit more advance research and planning, but not a ton more.

I must be at the wrong blog. I go find a bar, watch football and complain about how Chelsea are just buying up all the good players. Someone always raises a glass in acknowledgment.

Then I know who to ask about where to go.

As for art museums, you've seen one, you've seen them all. Take me to the local history museum.

Chelsea and its Russian money-enable power will crumble as soon as Mr. Putin's regime collapse.

Russian money-enebled

Be confounded this tiny keyboard!

* Russian money-enabled

"I must be at the wrong blog. I go find a bar, watch football and complain about how Chelsea are just buying up all the good players. Someone always raises a glass in acknowledgment."

LOL, I do something similar but bemoan the fact that my team, Ajax (the club of Cruyff and many other outstanding players), will never ever compete for the Champions League.

The first day in every city should include some sort a bus ride that goes around the entire central city. It can be a public bus if there's a good route; otherwise take a hop on-hop off bus tour. It gives you a sense of the size and layout of the city that you cannot get from a map. It also gives you a peek at every neighborhood so you get a better sense of any neighborhood you might want to explore.

Travel is so overrated.

And art museums suck.

As somebody said before - once you have seen one you have seen them all. Does anybody actually even enjoy art? Most people spend more time reading the descriptions next to the paintings than they do looking at the work.

If you would not pick up a book and study a country. Then I don't see the point of visiting it. Most of the world is pretty similar. And any differences are neither interesting or important. It might be interesting to visit a super advanced alien civilization living millions of light years away. But humans who are poorer, speak funny and dress different? I'll pass. It is just a bunch of people trying to get through their day. May as well invite people to come watch me sit on a computer all day just so they can "experience" England.

Much better to stay at home, read books and chill out. The best part of any trip is always coming home.

Travel is one of those weird status moves that have captured the minds of the west over the past 30 years. Suddenly everyone is fascinating by seeing different cultures even though they don't show the same interest when it comes to reading books or watching documentaries. That is if they read books at all.

I am a huge fan of Tyler. But he is very cliched and bourgeois in his tastes.

I feel you brother. But after spending an extended duration of time with several different human beings I have determined that a large subset genuinely enjoys travelling.

Best part is certainly NOT coming home. I enjoy the stress and tight connections - I particularly like planning trips that involve a lot of train or bus usage as to increase the feeling of a tight deadline.

Well, despite Joe's somewhat gloomy and uninspiring comment, he does have a point - travel is a tad overrated. If I'm honest I'm often quite looking forward to coming home towards the end. Tyler wrote once about how he cuts a book short if it's boring him - perhaps we should be the same with certain aspects of travel. Short sharp bursts is probably the answer.
I think it's the young that get the most out of travel, and I do want my kids to travel.
PS - I'd love it if people started turning up en masse where he works to see him working, jabbering away, LOL.

"Travel is one of those weird status moves that have captured the minds of the west over the past 30 years. Suddenly everyone is fascinating by seeing different cultures even though they don’t show the same interest when it comes to reading books or watching documentaries."

Tyler's posts reliably attract comments like these, which are "status moves" in their own right. Whatever can be said about Tyler, he is certainly not someone who shows no interest in books, documentaries, or in learning about other societies and cultures. Maybe you don't share his "cliched and bourgeois" interests; you are certainly free to seek out people whose interests meet with your personal approval.

Posting overly-strongly-worded contrarian opinions on the Internet is also a "weird status move" of sorts. Perhaps the weirdest.

It's totally fine and fair to dislike travel, but that does not mean that the mass of people who enjoy it are behaving disingenuously.

art appreciation is quite common (the shattering of the aura be damned) and its popularity doesn't take away from its intrinsic merit.

there is a significant qualitative difference between watching on a screen and experiencing in person. this holds for places as well as naked human beings.

also i'm sure there are plenty of, e.g., unsophisticated chinese who'd be interested in watching you go about your day in england -- whether they are internet voyeurs or curious tourists.

Pintxos are far better than tapas, but you have to pay for them.

And are only available in the north.

Here's what works for me in traveling to a new place, not necessarily for the first day only.

I spend lots of time in advance researching what's interesting about the place -- not only practical stuff like restaurants, museums, historical sites, etc., but also a bit of history and local culture -- economics too! By the time I'm ready to go I have lots and lots of potential destinations. But then, when I get there, I feel free to improvise. I might do something that's in the plan or I might just wing it with an option that I just wander into. The important thing about the planning, in the end, is not the list of what to do, but the context I get going through the process. Incidentally, that's also an argument for getting different points of view when planning ahead. I love the disagreements people express over what's cool and what's not for what they say about multiple ways of thinking about the character of an area and the values people look for in it.

Assuming that I'm going to spend more than a few days there, the first thing I do in a new city is go out and get deliberately lost. Take public transportation to some area of the city other than the one in which you will be staying and/or working or studying. Pick a direction from the bus/tram/subway/train stop and start walking, choosing your path by what looks most promising at a given intersection. Bring a good map, but don't use it until you are completely and utterly lost. Then navigate your way home, or back to some suitable public transport.

At some point, you will probably have to 1) ask for directions from a stranger and 2) find something to eat. If you are inclined, stop in a pub or cafe for a drink as well. Benefits include enforced interaction with the locals from a position of inferiority (ie. you're asking them for help), knowledge of the local geography and transport, some information regarding local food and customs, etc.

I find that forcing oneself to accomplish many small tasks on the first day can make the remaining days much more productive and enjoyable, since you will have figured out the basic systems of the place and be more comfortable navigating in a strange land. Generally just getting the rhythm of the city and de-mystifying some aspects can be extremely useful. The city will become a place to explore rather than a set of obstacles to be overcome.

That said, this is not suitable for every city, depending on your personal preferences and the local circumstances. I've used this idea with great success in many European cities and moderate success in several North American and Middle Eastern cities. I did not try this in Kabul or Karachi.

Yeah that plan of yours Nathan, the one about deliberately getting lost? - I don't think that's gonna end well. Just saying.

I like the challenge of trying to learn the local language and see how well I can get along in the country after four months of semi-intensive preparation. Learning a new language is self-rewarding, but the amazement and happiness I see in the locals when they hear me try to speak their language are very gratifying, especially if that language is not Indo-European. In one incident the taxi driver was persuaded that I had come to see my mother, a citizen of his country he thought. That didn't prevent him from requiring (in a rather threatening way) an absurd amount for the trip. It wasn't a bad deal though: flattery has its price, especially if it sounds sincere.

Not having the "challenge" of being illnumerate, Day 1 (arguably) is the day you arrive. If I arrive at 1:30 am (local time) my activities are different than if I arrive at 6 am, 11 am, 3 pm etc. Generally, the first thing I do if the city is in a new country (monetary system) is get some local currency. Then I confirm (or locate) my room reservation. Then I stow my luggage, unless I'm traveling lite. In contrast to what Tyler says, I then typically find a cafe more or less on the "main drag" and have a snack (caffeine and some calories). If there is decent public transportation, I might get on and go to the end of the line (city /metro area 'limits') and walk around a bit and then make my way back towards my room, check in, and take it from there.

First thing I do is get a detailed street map of the city center. Then I set out on foot, preferably keeping to side streets. I set as a destination a transit stop on the other side of town, from which I can get home again.

I stop and eat wherever I want. I'm not a gourmet.

I buy something for my wife.

The second day is the same, except I choose a route at right angles to the first, or I go someplace away from the city center.

I always read the phone book, though that's less useful than it used to be.

I always try to go to the highest point possible that's reasonably priced first. Visit the Arc de Triomphe or Sacre Coeur versus the Eiffel Tower. Second, I try to knock of the biggest tourist attractions as fast as possible. There's a reason they are tourist traps.

The first thing to do is to pepper the cabbie with questions. Then strike up a friendly acquaintance with a local. Then, who knows. Keep your wits, but be open to an adventure.

Jet lag is a factor here.

I don't sleep much on planes, so my strategy for beating jet lag is to power through the day of arrival so that I adjust to the local schedule. So I want activities that will tire me out, but will not require a lot of mental exertion, and hopefully help me get my bearings in the city. This means, mostly, walking.

Generally, my first stop will be where I'm staying, so that I can drop off my bag. If I can check in, I'll take a quick shower. After that, I'll find a nearby cafe and get a light breakfast while sketching out a rough itinerary for a walk. I may venture into the city center and walk around there (especially if I am staying nearby) but, like Tyler, I'll avoid the main drag except for a quick peek. If I'm saying further afield, I'll probably start with the immediate neighborhood, though I'll often head into the center later in the day.

I do like a leisurely lunch after a good walk. After lunch, I'll walk around another neighborhood and/or perhaps check out a minor museum or historical site, but I save the big-ticket stuff for another day, when my powers of concentration are greater. So I think Tyler's strategy is a good one, with the exception of going to the city's best art museum - that's not an activity for the first day.

Also, if I'm jet-lagged, I'll usually keep my meals fairly light on the first day, and avoid alcohol aside from possibly a beer or a glass of wine with lunch.

If I'm not jet-lagged, I'll treat it more like a normal day, although I still try to get a good walk in before doing anything else.

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